I transferred to the University of Texas at Dallas during the second year of my undergraduate education, and I think I may have stumbled on one of the world’s most unique school. Our school is known for its internationally recognized chess team, not a football team. We are known by our quirks, not our mainstream. This has led to a diverse student population, and many of our students are international students. The smell of chicken curry often wafts through the breezeways of our on-campus apartments, particularly where many of the graduate students live. While all this diversity creates a perfect environment to learn from other cultures, groups have rubbed elbows before. I seized an opportunity to write about a recent happening in our school’s opinion publication, A Modest Proposal, and the Internet soon blew up with comments.
The trolls (and a few commenters) pushed and pulled the conversation in many directions. At one point it was generally agreed upon that making racist jokes among friends is really just a form of acknowledging each others’ diversity. It is true that curry poses a problem for people living in such close quarters, but the issue must be handled delicately. This problem is certainly not restricted to UTD, but is present in many other college campuses. Only by joining the conversation can Indians promote understanding and goodwill on our campuses.
Incoming freshmen are quickly indoctrinated in the stereotypes of UTD culture. Without a football team to rally behind, we have created an identity mainly based on our campus’ lack of typical university culture. The lack of a definitive symbol of UTD has caused us to create a conglomerate of stereotypes to create a collective identity. Unicyclists, the chess team, and one particular Segway rider have become a part of our campus myth despite the fact that they are completely misrepresentative of the student population. A few Facebook groups have been created in recognition of our odd stereotypes.
Total Comet Move (TCM) is a Facebook page attracting over 940 followers that posts quips about common UTD stereotypes, much like other websites that focus on a generalization such as TotalFratMove.com. TCM lampoons UTD groups such as gamers, parking enforcement officers, and the chess team. While TCM’s first posts about UTD’s quirks were tasteful and humorous, within one day of its inception TCM was already running out of content to keep the crowds laughing. In order to get their cheap laughs they turned to making distasteful comments about the various cultures at UTD. Among their most objectionable posts are “Is that curry I smell next door? Ah, the Spring semester has indeed begun.” and “Someone farted in class. It smelled like curry. TCM.”
At the very least, TCM’s comments are unwarranted attacks on personal dignity. Jokes about a person’s body odor hurt the pride of their subjects. Not only have they committed the crime of generalization, they have dehumanized a group by reaching into what would normally be considered their personal space. It’s true that odors don’t stick to one’s personal space; it’s also true that the pungent odor of curry can linger, even after hand washing. However repugnant a person may smell, it is horribly impolite to tell them this in any other way than in private and with utmost sensitivity. This is college, after all, and not elementary school.
TCM’s comments aren’t just in bad taste, but also could easily be construed as racism. Food is an integral part of culture, and is often part of a national or racial identity. Various cultures enjoy curries that range from Trinidadian sweet curries to spicy Thai curries. While it’s true that none of the comments made were directly invoking race, their implications become clear when comments by users and TCM acknowledge that their subjects are “brown” and “Indians.”
According to the Fall 2010 University Profile, 18% of the student population was classified as Asian-American and 16% were considered international students. India is the first foreign country of origin for UTD students, and curry is an integral part of Indian cuisine. If our students continue to face harassment, UTD’s efforts in attracting a diverse student body will certainly be hampered. International students already face culture shock, financial worries, and much more. Why punch them in the gut for what’s in their gut?
UTD is excellent at attracting students from around the globe. Even our homecoming theme this year, Whoosh Around the World, acknowledged the diversity we see on campus as well as want to see in the future. If UTD is to continue to foster an environment that welcomes newcomers as well as the more than 2,500 international students, a spirit of understanding and respect must be bred on campus. Programs such as the iFriend Cultural Exchange Program, created by the International Student Services Office, seek to pair up an international student with a student versed in American culture. This program is an opportunity to change people’s paradigms about international students and what they bring to UTD, and it only takes an hour a week.
International students contribute to campus culture at whatever university they attend. Students should try to learn as much as they can from people of different cultures. The domestic population only hurts itself by ostracizing the foreigners on campus. Rather, we should initiate a conversation that will lead to both parties building up respect and understanding for each other.